Bengaluru flex attacking muscle to turn frustrating night around
It could have been one of those nights for Bengaluru FC and Miku. One of those where nothing could go right. For 72 minutes, nothing had.
NorthEast United had come to the Kanteerava Stadium with a clear plan -- stay disciplined, stay deep, frustrate -- and it looked like it was going to pay off in the second leg of their ISL semi-final. With a 2-1 lead from the first leg, they were on course to knocking BFC off their pedestal and sealing a place in the ISL final.
BFC had tried everything, playing it out of the back, building play through Dimas Delgado and Xisco Hernandez, trying their patented out-of-the-training-ground set pieces, having their full-backs and wide-forwards stretch play as wide as they could, but the final touch had seemed to desert them.
The main culprit had been Miku.
The Venezuelan had missed three gilt-edged chances: a header glanced wide, a shot smacked high -- both from within the six-yard box, both unmarked -- and a baroque dribble that had taken him past the entire NorthEast backline but ended with a tame shot that squiggled into the hands of goalkeeper Pawan Kumar. Miku looked frustrated, shoulders stooping, team-mates screaming at him to pass.
Federico Gallego threw himself at a Miku shot in the 55th minute and the follow-through caught him so bad an ambulance had to be driven onto the field to take the Uruguayan to the hospital. The visitors were putting limb and body on the line, and they were doing an awfully good job of keeping the league leaders at bay. As the tension crackled palpably through the warm Bengaluru air, NorthEast doubled up on their defensive efforts and it seemed likely they would go make that unlikely debut final appearance. The weight of expectations, the agony of last year's final defeat in this stadium, the defensive resilience of their opponents -- it all seemed to weigh heavily on the home team's shoulders.
Seventy-two minutes in, though, BFC's ruthlessness clicked back into place.
Udanta Singh raced down the touchline and whipped in a fizzing, low cross that Miku glanced into the far corner with the most delicate of touches. With the score now 2-2 on aggregate, Bengaluru were going through on away goals.
NorthEast had entered the game without two of their best players -- Bartholomew Ogbeche (captain and top-scorer) and Rowllin Borges had both suffered muscle injuries in the first leg. They had had to replace stand-in skipper Robert Lalthlamuana after he picked up an injury in the warm-up to this game. They had seen Gallego, their best attacking outlet, suffer a horrible injury mid-game, a multiple fracture to his right leg. And as things stood, they were going out on the away goals rule.
They'd have been forgiven for throwing the towel in, but at no point did they give in -- head coach Eelco Schattorie doesn't make his team like that. Chasing the away goal that they needed to stay in the tie, though, they left themselves hopelessly exposed at the back.
Dimas added to their pain when another splendid Udanta run and cross found him unmarked in the six-yard box and he finished with minimum fuss.
Sunil Chhetri added one more with a calm one-on-one finish against Pawan but by the time the BFC captain had put the gloss of a 3-0 score on the finish (4-2 on aggregate), the game had long been done and dusted with.
Bengaluru powered through to their second straight ISL final, but NorthEast had played their part, and it made for a heck of a spectacle. Jose Leudo was immense in midfield (as he had been in the first leg), while he was on, while Gallego had been a constant menace with his direct running and superb ball control. They played as a unit, played to a plan, and it almost came off. David had come within 18 minutes of slaying Goliath. But in the end, the home team were too strong. Too ruthless. Too good.